CAN MYSTICISM BE PRACTICAL?

Photoevelyn3

Evelyn Underhill asked this question of herself one hundred years ago on the eve of the outbreak of The Great War. Oddly enough reading her book titled Practical Mysticism, I’m struck with how current it is. Her arguments against materialism and self- interest are as pertinent today as they were in 1914. And how strange it is to be reading her work at a time when the US appears to be on the verge of expanding the war on terror. This is the case especially when you consider how at the end of WW I, the victorious sliced, diced, and built nations in the Middle East which are root causes of today’s issues.

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Evelyn Underhill is considered an authority on Christian mysticism having spent a lifetime researching, exploring, experiencing, and writing about it. For her, mysticism is defined as the art of union with reality. Notice the absence of the G- word. In order to justify taking up the call of this difficult journey, both inward and outward, mysticism to Evelyn’s mind must be practical. It’s not just about reaching up, it’s also about bringing down. While the experience of ultimate reality is personally transforming, mystics must create in the material world.

In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn outlines a universal process to be used by those interested in deeply engaging with reality. The first step requires the training of attention. With meditation and recollection, you begin to experience freedom, spaciousness, and peace. Your values change as you let go of your attachments. Later, as you develop in the first contemplation stage, you bring the “eyes of love toward the world”, recognizing the Immanent Being in everyone (and everything). You go in search of connection while dismantling your own personality. During the second contemplation, you’re pulled into deeper levels of reality which are supported now by an inward push. At this stage, knowing is achieved through direct intuitive contact and not through thought or feeling. Here the depth and height of your experience transforms you. The transcendent nature of mystical experience is ineffable, but that has never stopped mystics from trying to describe it.

Photo by Bjoertvedt

Photo by Bjoertvedt

One line truly stood out from the book for me. Evelyn says (and here Christian mystics seem to depart from Eastern traditions), “Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly.” Of course, there are whole traditions that advocate just that.

Returning to Evelyn’s map of mystical progress, the third contemplation is characterized by a ceasing of your active efforts. You let go of striving and rest in the darkness and quietude. The self surrenders, receives, and gains a conviction in the certainty of the Transcendent. What you actually experience depends on the individual. Some may experience ecstasy, but it is always on some level, unity through personal encounter. From here, you return to the material world to take up the mystical life going deeper and wider, permanently changed. Now the work involves becoming “an active and impassioned servant of eternal wisdom.” In Evelyn’s model, contemplation is never an end in itself. The challenge of the spiritual life is to go up and down the ladder getting inspiration and creating in the world. The work to be done today is huge; much like it was back in 1914. The true mystic takes up the call to live a “better, intenser, and more significant life.”

 

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29 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Books, Spiritual/Mysticism

29 responses to “CAN MYSTICISM BE PRACTICAL?

  1. … I have heard a lot about Evelyn Underhill, but never encountered one of her own writings. Reading has cooled down over the years, as one reads the same thing over and over again, and I got rid of a lot of books in the past two years. But your post is motiviating enough to have a glance in a couple of bookshops, the coming days …

  2. psychosis5116

    I am interested in spiritual things. Not religious things, but spiritual things. As in the human spirit. The spirits’ flame can fade and die causing a spiritual death without a physical death. I like your blog and appreciate your viewing mine. I am seeking a wider audience and advice on getting published. Thanks. George

  3. This is fascinating in itself as a concept and as a reality it speaks to me. Beautifully written and intelligently reflected. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I really like this approach to mysticism. Cave mysticism is not only impractical but also superficial. After all, mysticism is an spiritual enrichment of life-world; where there is no engaged life mysticism loses its ground and significance. Mystical ascend is an ascend in the world and with the world; it is at once immanent in and transcendent to the world. Without this immanence, transcendence can’t exist.
    I am looking forward to reading Underhill’s book.

    • You also might like some of Caroline Myss’ work. She talks about how we are “mystics without monasteries” today. A difficult place to be, but one in which we fully engage with the world.

      • Thank you. I will check her out. I believe we are entering a post spiritual age; prior to this mysticism was related to exoteric traditions, to faith and devotion, and spiritual establishments. But it is turning out that they were only embodiments of truth for certain stage of evolution of consciousness. Truth itself transcends all its formal expressions; now human himself becomes the embodiment of truth, the house of truth. I have written in my book “Non-Dual Perspectives on Quantum Physics” about this subject of truth becoming out of that hands of elitist traditions such as religion, spiritual dogams and even science itself; so far they had claimed exclusive rights to truth, thus becoming dogmatic under their own authoritative attitude. But the only person who should have claim to truth, direct intuition of it, is the individual, though tradition may offer help as well. If you were interested in such approach or wanted to write about it there is link to my book in my page. I won’t post the link here cuz don’t want to advertise in your page or give such impression. Thanks for your reply ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I am going to look up the book. Underhill’s approach is admirable. Love the photo.

  6. Well written Ellis , you are one of the most sincere Blogers on the Web.

    We say lets meditate lets become a mystic , or lets become something else like a city broker, both are a course of action, a course of thought some thing to put ones mind to.

    I have read about spiritual things and now I am going to think about it all and become spiritual.

    You might just as well become a city banker. Why because you are thinking you want a spiritual identity ,persona and something to achieve with it. The very act of wanting to achieve robs you of the tranquillity which comes from looking at who you are now and saying I am not that. It shows me who I am not. Yet it is that ego which wants to become a mystic or a city Banker.

    So there is no difference. If one approaches non being with thought. The only way to truly find God or Consciousness is in your own well being. Their you understand with out dogma or religion.
    Because you know if you are well or not.

    Russell

  7. Khaver Ellis – Thank you for sharing these thoughts on modern streams of mysticism. Alas, until reading your post I was unfamiliar with Evelyn Underhill, although your parallel with the looming war then and the growth of mystic expression now is insightful. A sense of social uncertainty has always been in the background of mystical renewal.

  8. I’m reminded of a saying popular with Wicca, Shamanism and Earth based spiritual practices. “As Above, So Below, United Within, Energy to me and through me”. “Be in the world but not of it”

  9. Love it. Practical always gets my attention. Loving moving through the journey.

  10. Practical yet impassioned – what a great place to be. Once we start getting over this entirely arbitrary separation between the ‘mystical’ and the ‘material’, then we’ll all be better off. Great review! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Ellis, I’ve recently begun a Facebook community called Sacred. I’d like your permission to share this blog at some point in the future when I get more followers. Thanks.

  12. Bringing spirituality in the material world, we are the bridge between the two. There are not separate or opposite but one and the same.

  13. The more things change, the more they stay the same… sounds like a powerful book!

  14. Kat

    Reblogged this on Kat Webber and commented:
    Add it to the TBR!

  15. Thanx for sharing this, you’ve helped validate the journey I’m on. There is no real path or blueprint to follow when you take up the call to live a โ€œbetter, intenser, and more significant life.โ€ โค

  16. I must check out her book

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